I have been wanting to write a blog post about my forays back into being a student, however have felt quite self conscious about the whole process. I am doing a PhD in Creative Writing at La Trobe university on a part time basis while I work full time as a teacher. I’m fortunate in that my task is to write an 80,000 word novel and a companion exegeses of 20,000 words. I have seven years to complete my PhD which feels manageable and I'm hopeful it won't take that long.
Doing a PhD has been one of my bucket list items and I always thought I’d do it at some point, but never planned to be doing it now and I’m still slightly shell-shocked that I’m actually doing it now.
What I have learnt along the way:
The proposal you submit does not mean you can’t change your mind.
Last year I began a historical crime novel that was slightly based on my mother’s experiences of being a migrant and suffering a mental illness. As I wrote the book it kept expanding in scope and until it incorporated the Vietnam War. Then a conversation with Vikki Petraitis derailed me. She asked why did the story have to be set as a historical fiction because there was more scope to explore women’s lives in contemporary fiction.
Vikki had begun her PhD, as had our other friend Kimberley Starr. They had been mentioning that I should also do it but I was feeling inferior. This wasn’t something I could do. And anyway I was already working on a book that I was committed to and a PhD had to be on something new. After Vikki’s conversation I realised that in making my novel a contemporary story I was effectively beginning again. I decided to change point of view, change the main character from a house wife to a journalist, and thought that since I was beginning again I might as well submit an application for my PhD.
So I did, and I got in. My supervisor requested a chapter-by-chapter plan of my novel and I started writing my first chapters. But something wasn’t clicking with my main character. I needed her to be a fearless outsider and decided to give her backstory as a survivor of the Balkan War genocide in the town of Srebrenica. In order to create her voice I started researching Srebrenica and writing chapters from my character’s point of view as a young adult.
As I submitted my chapters to my writing group Pink Ladies they told me this felt like it was a whole new book. I forged ahead, but the muse was in fine form and started creating a further story arc from the point of view of a young adult. I submitted my new chapters to my supervisors and at our next meeting shared my new idea for my novel. They were supportive and told me to go where the passion was, and so now I’m writing a young adult novel about a refugee girl who is a survivor of the genocide. I feel like it’s taken me three tries to figure out my next novel but I am now fully committed and so excited about this book.
So if you’re thinking about doing a PhD just put in a proposal and start writing. If the project changes it will be okay. You don’t need to know everything before you start, you just need to start.
A PhD will provide you with a support mechanism to write
One of the hardest things about being a writer is that in most instances no one is actually waiting for your book unless you have a book deal, which most of us don’t. This means that writing in a regular basis requires lots of discipline and self motivation, which can be really hard to find when you’re working full time, you have a family that you need to spend some time with, and friends and family that you want to maintain a relationship with.
I’m working full time as a teacher which means that I have to be disciplined about writing and find time to meet my supervisors. I meet my supervisors every school holidays and so my goal is to write 2-3 chapters every 2-3 months. I also have a writing group that I’m a member of and we meet once a month. So every month I need to write at least one chapter and submit to my writing group, and then every 3 months I need to submit a few chapters to my supervisors. This means that I have deadlines I have to meet and so I have to prioritise my writing. My current schedule is waking up at 6 am to write for at least an hour every day before I go to work in order to make sure that all these wheels keep turning.
While sometimes it feels that the writing is moving at a glacially slow pace, it is moving. I’ve clocked up 15,000 words and while they all need lots of work, I am slowly crafting the building blocks of my book.
I’m not really sure what an exegeses is and the more I sink into the rabbit hole, the more I find out what it could be. I basically have to write a 20,000 word essay which is a companion to my novel. So this could be a literature review of novels that are in some way connected to my novel. One idea is a literature review of crime novels featuring Bosnian characters, another is a review of novels set during the war, and talking about how this informed by book. I could also do a self reflection on my writing process. I’m unsure what my final exegesis is but as I my novel develops I feel like it’s going to become much clearer.
My supervisors told me to focus on writing the book as the exegesis is supposed to be a companion to my novel, and until I write my novel I can’t write this. I’m also not stressing about this part of the process. I’m focussing on the novel and ensuring that I collate my research so that I have all the breadcrumbs that I need at the end of this process.
Research is a necessity and so is developing tools to collate the research
I am writing a historical book and half of it is set during a war so research is a necessity. Research is a complicated business. While it’s easy to research what I need for the war, I’m not sure what I’ll need to write my exegeses, because I don’t what it will be. So I have to be really diligent in compiling my research so I can come back to it later.
I use Scrivener to write my novel, which I love because it is easy to write chapters and have synopsis, but I’m also finding it useful for compiling research. I can import websites and have them in my document for later.
I have also created a separate research folder and documents for each book I read listing quotes and page numbers so that I can refer to it as needed. As I’m writing I need to list my footnotes so that I know what piece of historical research I received from where so I’m inserting footnotes into my Scrivener documents.
Typing up research has been really time consuming so I bought a digital highlighter and I’m finding that much easier to scan information from books and have it converted into a digital file.
I bought a Scanmarker Air which is $119 US and by the time the conversation rate and postage was taken into account is actually closer to $160 AUS. It works really well and there are a few corrections I have to make after it has scanned documents. I'm attaching a short video showing how it works.
I’m still figuring out the research side of it, but I’m feeling more confident in my compilation of research because I’m able to find what I need as I need it.
PhD and the network of smarter friends
This is my first year of completing a PhD and I feel very lucky in the network that I have in my friends Vikki and Kim, or as we call ourselves The Antigones. While we knew each other beforehand working together on our PhD has really solidified our friendship.
I’m also finding the opportunities to develop a wider network incredibly invaluable. They have changed the rules with PhDs and we need to complete a presentation on our research and work as part of our candidature. In order to support us the English Faculty has been holding monthly Postgraduate Seminars for candidates to present and attending these has given me the opportunity to develop more networks and learn from others. There are also opportunities to attend professional development through the library and research centre and catch ups organised by faculty members. These opportunities to mingle and learn have really helped build my confidence and also made studying enjoyable. A have a whole new network of people to share ideas with and it’s so nice to broaden my horizons.
I was speaking to a colleague who is also completing a PhD and she advised me to start a reflection diary to record my reflections on my project as I am undertaking research. I have started doing this and am recording how the books and research I’m doing is influencing my book and conversations I’m having with people that are influencing me. This might then help me with my exegeses in terms of being able to map my artistic practice.
I am very lucky that I’m being supervised by Paddy O’Reilly and Claire Knowles. Paddy is a writer that I have admired since she was published and Claire is an academic who is really helping me think through that side of it. I didn’t request any supervisors, they were allocated to me and I’m finding them incredibly supportive and helpful.
That’s all for now folks
So that’s it. That’s what I’ve learnt so far from this PhD business. I’m only ten months in so these are the early days and there’s a lot more to figure out.
Two bobs about the application process
If you are interested in applying for a PhD some things about the application process:
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Amra Pajalić is an award-winning author, an editor and teacher who draws on her Bosnian cultural heritage to write own voices stories for young people, who like her, are searching to mediate their identity and take pride in their diverse culture. She writes memoir, young adult and romance under the pen name Mae Archer.
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